Remembering Jovito Salonga
THE RECENT passing of Filipino political icon, Jovito Salonga, is a devastating loss to Philippine society, politics and culture. He was often referred to as the “greatest President the Philippines never had.” He should have been president! Indeed, Philippine destiny might have been significantly better with Salonga at the helm.
Since the current generation of Filipinos is too young to know who Salonga was, it is imperative that they at least get some substantial knowledge of his past and subsequent achievements and accomplishments.
He had a superior intellect and unquestionable integrity. He was the epitome of compassion and, best of all, an unflappable temperament.
I knew him personally as the most remarkable human being I have ever met. He was always pleasant, slow to anger and deliberate in his behavior. He had none of the corruption of the political system during his time and until now.
One of the things that I remember so well was listening to him in Encino, California, about his attempt to dissuade the late Ninoy Aquino from going back to the Philippines because the Marcos dictatorship was intent on eliminating him from causing troubles among his followers not only in the Philippines but also in the United States and all over the world.
But the late Ninoy Aquino would not be deterred. He was confident that the worst that could happen to him was to go back to prison, which to him was tolerable, having been detained previously for nearly a decade in the Philippines. But that was not to be.
It must be recalled that Salonga himself was one of the most critically wounded victims of the Plaza Miranda bombing, which Marcos had attributed to the “communists.” He was pronounced “clinically dead” and his survival was seen by most observers as an act of God, meant to allow him to live a longer and fuller life after that deadly bombing in 1971. He lived to the ripe old age of 95.
When he came back to the Philippines from exile in the United States, Salonga formed the Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG), tasked by the incoming Cory administration to pursue the “ill-gotten wealth” of Marcos, which was estimated to be between $5 billion and $10 billion. And probably even more.
After a year of serving as PCGG chair, Salonga decided to run for the Senate—a measure of his fundamental preference for good government and democratic rule. He obtained the highest number of votes, which was much more than what he garnered in the previous 1965 and 1971 elections. Under his leadership, the PCGG recovered much of the “hidden wealth” stashed away in Swiss banks and other shell companies formed by the regime to receive much of the hidden wealth on a regular basis.
His compassion, humility and work ethic were incomparable. Because of his “due diligence” work and superior intellect, much of the hidden wealth was recovered, and until now much more has been unraveled and returned to the Philippine government to be used for the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.
On a personal level, his presence before was flattering and it was a real pleasure to meet him. He was the epitome of compassion and humility. You felt important and at ease with him as he talked about his life and career without any taint of arrogance and elitism. He always asked what you were doing, what’s going on with your life, and offering how he could assist you if you needed help in your personal undertakings.
While I was “stranded” in Hawaii, where I was overtaken by martial law in 1972, he designated me as one of the PCGG’s representatives in the United States. I was assigned to Hawaii where much of the hidden wealth was suspected to be kept when Marcos and his family and cronies were exiled with the help of the United States. Hawaii was chosen as his place of exile because many Filipinos in Hawaii are Ilocano, some of them Marcos’ relatives and friends. No other state in the United States would accept them in their ranks.
The Cory administration appointed Tomas “Buddy” Gomez III to monitor Marcos’ moves and maneuvers in Hawaii. Marcos started to destabilize the Cory administration using the Consulate to plot some of his maneuvers. But the ever militant Buddy Gomez was always watching him like a hawk, and even foiled an attempt by Marcos and his men to intercept their move. The details of this remarkable scenario are too complex to explain in this brief commentary.
There will be no other human being like Jovito Salonga. And his legacy of honor and pride will remain one of the highest points in our history as a nation.
Belinda A. Aquino is currently professor emeritus at University of Hawaii at Manoa where she served as professor of political science and Asian studies, and founding director of the Center for Philippine Studies.
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